‘We made outsourcing a strategic, viable option’
S. Mahalingam. File photo. | The Hindu

The room looked like it belonged at some ISRO facility. The walls were covered with computer print-outs. Every few hours, someone would enter the room with a new bundle of software specifications, in an India Post cover, and begin replacing the old charts with new ones. But this wasn’t Sriharikota or the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre. It was a conference room in Tata Consultancy Services’ (TCS) office in Delhi.

“At that time, we [the original team at TCS] believed that if the company ever touched a thousand employees, it would be the maximum. Similarly, I thought the first office in Chennai which we built, which housed 1,600 employees, would the biggest one TCS ever set up. Needless to say, I was very wrong,” laughed S. Mahalingam, who stepped down as Chief Financial Officer of the country’s largest software exporter on February 9. For Mr. Mahalingam, the biggest challenge in his career, which spanned more than four decades, was taking TCS public.

“The IPO was a phenomenal issue, in a sense that it captured all the work that I was doing earlier. From a legal standpoint, we had to carve out a division from Tata Sons and cobble together a company that we now call TCS. Articulating it before investors was a difficult task but as I came from this business, I could relate to it,” he said, in a telephone interaction with The Hindu.

Mr. Mahalingam, who joined TCS as a programmer intending to get work experience before applying for an MBA abroad, has worked across various departments including sales, operations and finance.

“A second challenge, something I wanted to get over before stepping down, was getting over the problems that came after the financial crisis hit. We had made some big bets— buying Citibank’s captive BPO arm just eleven days after the Lehman Brothers collapsed. We focused on the margins problem, in some cases operating ruthlessly to get them up, and finally grew by $1.8 billion in the two years after 2009,” he said.

However, Mr. Mahalingam isn’t completely satisfied. “There are some niche areas, where one always thinks one could have become a thought leader in, the way Microsoft or Google is. But we set out to do what we had planned. We made executives believe that off-shoring and outsourcing was a strategic and viable option. For now, I’m taking a break. TCS is in good hands. While I haven’t decided, I may come back in terms of mentoring or guiding.”

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